Monthly Archives: November 2010

The Republic of Heaven

…we have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are,
because for us there is no elsewhere.
— from Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass

In an interview, Pullman explains: Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Christopher Hitchens, incandescent

(Update: The original clip I linked to has been withdrawn due to a copyright claim, and the full debate now hides behind a paywall; apparently the generous Christians at Prestonwood are now charging for Hitchens’ atheist view. Perhaps they’re not feeling so magnanimous now that the consensus is that their side was trounced? For the moment, other versions still exist on YouTube, including this one. I’ve transcribed it below, although it’s worth clicking through to hear Hitchens’ always-impressive delivery.)

Here are Christopher Hitchens’ closing remarks in a debate with William Dembski on the question “Does a Good God Exist?”: Continue reading


Filed under Uncategorized

Science and poetry, cont’d: “What it takes to dazzle us”

from “Mt. Lemmon, Steward Observatory, 1990”
by Alison Hawthorne Deming

What it takes to dazzle us, masters of dazzle,
all of us here together at the top of the world,
is a night without neon or mercury lamps.
Black sheen flowing above,
the stars, unnamed and disorderly —
diamonds, a ruby or sapphire,
scattered and made
more precious for being cut
from whatever strand
once held them together.
The universe is emptiness and dust,
occasional collisions, collapsing zones of gas,
electrical outbursts, and us.

Here is the 60-inch scope where
we struggle to see one pinpoint of light,
each singularity with its timid twinkle
become a city of stars, that trapezoidal
grouping at the end of Orion’s sword,
a cloudy nursery spawning
galactic stuff, lit but not illuminated
by a glassy hot blue star. What is it to see?
A mechanism wired in the brain
that leads to wonder. What is it
to wonder but to say
what we’ve seen and, having said it,
need to see farther.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What do we owe our tribes? On identity beyond ethnicity

I’m a big fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson, and hardly need an excuse to post about him on this blog. Here he is, talking to students at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Maryland and revisiting some of his favorite topics: what happens when you fall into a black hole, why Pluto was demoted, what damage the approaching asteroid Apophis might do, etc. As always, it’s an enlightening and entertaining hour and a half, and I recommend watching the whole thing.

But I did put up this specific video for a reason — and it’s because Tyson also talks about something that, to my knowledge, he rarely discusses: how he reconciled his personal interests with what he felt were his duties to “the black community.” That conversation starts at around 30 minutes in, and runs about 12 minutes:

I find his story enormously compelling — in no small part because I feel I’ve been grappling with similar issues for years. I’m not a native-born American, and I’m an ethnic minority; these are facts that I don’t often mention here, partly because they’re not often relevant to what I want to talk about, and partly because I suppose I’m rebelling against the expectation that I have to talk about them — that my experience of the world must be filtered and expressed through the lens of my ethnicity and cultural origins.

Which is why I found it tremendously moving and liberating when Tyson described the first time he saw himself on TV explaining the universe: here’s a black man who wasn’t talking about being black; who wasn’t being asked how “his people” feel about certain astronomical events; who wasn’t being made out to be a spokesman for his “tribe.” Instead, he was holding forth on something he felt passionate about: something that he had expertise in, that he was good at — and that didn’t necessarily have anything directly to do with addressing the concerns or improving the welfare of his particular “group.” He was, in short, just being himself.

And the brilliant paradox of all this is that by being himself, by choosing for himself the areas in which he would pursue excellence without explicitly honoring his perceived obligations to “community,” he wound up uplifting that community anyway — by defying (and redefining) cultural expectations of what black people can or can’t do. He rejected the notion that certain people should only speak about or act on certain concerns; he set himself free from such artificial constraints, and in the process encouraged others to allow themselves to pursue their own passions without guilt as well. In other words: without rejecting or dishonoring his ethnicity, he chose to define himself beyond ethnicity. And I find that truly inspiring. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Wizard loves science

Daniel Radcliffe sings Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements”:

And for those who, like his audience, don’t remember the original (gasp!), a refresher:


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A.C. Newman takes on “Take On Me”

The test of a good song is if it works even without a cool video of animated pencil sketches.

Yeah, it’s a good song.

(h/t Bob Cesca)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Another triumph for science!

I love it. Via the New York Times:

It has taken four highly qualified engineers and a bunch of integral equations to figure it out, but we now know how cats drink. The answer is: very elegantly, and not at all the way you might suppose.

Here’s how:

The best part? To test their findings, the engineers used a robotic “tongue” that precisely imitated the cat’s lapping action. The machine’s provenance:

The project required no financing. The robot that mimicked the cat’s tongue was built for an experiment on the International Space Station, and the engineers simply borrowed it from a neighboring lab.

Yes! Thank you, ISS. This is exactly why we need to continue to fund space technology. Sure, I’d prefer — as Richard Dawkins does — that astrophysical research be funded more out of the “awe and wonder” motive than the “non-stick frying pan” side benefits. But I have to admit: learning how kitties drink is an awesome benefit indeed.

In all seriousness, this is in fact exactly why we need to support science research of all kinds — because you never know when a finding in one field might have some crucial application in another. Strategies or technologies in one discipline may help solve a puzzle for which they were never intended: today, how cats lap; tomorrow — who knows? — perhaps the cure for cancer.

Go to the Times and New Scientist for more.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized